Serbian President Boris Tadic apologized Thursday at the site where more than 200 Croats were massacred, offering the strongest condemnation to date by a leader from Serbia of wartime atrocities committed by the country.
Laying a wreath at Ovcara, a former pig farm where a mass grave remains a painful symbol for Croats of Serb brutality during the 1991 ethnic war, Tadic said he came to "bow down before the victims."
"By acknowledging the crime, by apologizing and regretting, we are opening the way for forgiveness and reconciliation," Tadic said.
Croatia's state television and radio carried his entire speech.
"With this visit, I think the war between Croatia and Serbia has come to a symbolic end," Milan Ivkosic, of the conservative Croatian daily Vecernji List, told the SEEbiz website.
A few hours later, Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic laid a wreath at the graveyard of 18 Serbs killed by Croats in 1991 in a nearby village of Paulin Dvor and Josipovic said that "those who are left behind those victims deserve our apology."
"A crime has no justification; revenge cannot be justified by a crime," Josipovic said. The slaying in Paulin Dvor came a month after the massacre at Ovcara.
Though relations between the neighbors have vastly improved, the two presidents' joint tour of the killing sites and apologies offer a symbolic step of reconciliation after years of mutual accusations over atrocities. Tadic is the first Serb leader to visit Ovcara, the site of one of the worst massacres of the Balkan conflicts that followed the post-communism breakup of Yugoslavia.
Accompanied by Josipovic, Tadic said the two of them visited the site near the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar "to create the possibility that Croats and Serbs can turn a new page of history."
More than 200 Croats were executed at Ovcara after Serb soldiers dragged them out of a local hospital.
"His apology means little to me because he wasn't personally responsible for the crime in the first place," said Vesna Bosanac, who had been a doctor at the hospital in 1991 and saw her patients taken away to be executed at Ovcara.
"However, he can lean on the institutions and on those who know exactly what happened here to help us resolve the fate of the missing people," she told Reuters.
Josipovic said the two were there to show that "a different policy, one of cooperation and friendship is possible" between the two nations.
Vukovar was leveled by Serb bombardment in November 1991, after a three-month siege, leaving hundreds dead and forcing even more to flee their homes.
Some in Croatia oppose Tadic's visit, saying he should have first admitted that Serbs were aggressors in the war. Several members of the small Croatian Party of Rights gathered in Vukovar carrying banners saying: "Apology, Not Regret" and "You're Not Welcome."
Mothers turn their backs
Several mothers of those killed in Vukovar came to Ovcara and turned their backs on Tadic as he spoke.
The two presidents will also lay wreaths for 18 Serbs killed by Croats in a nearby village.
Serbia backed Croatian Serbs when they rebelled against the country's independence from Yugoslavia, which triggered the war. The rebels seized a third of the country, and more than 10,000 people were killed and entire communities expelled.
Four years later, Zagreb took back the territory in a blitz offensive, followed by a period of killings and purges of Serbs by Croatians.
The two neighbors have since largely patched up relations, but tensions persist and each nation still sees itself as the chief victim of the war. They have sued each other for genocide before The Hague-based World Court and nearly 2,400 people remain missing.
Cooperation between Croatia and Serbia is vital to stability in the Balkans, but it is also a key condition for the entry into the European Union, which both are seeking. Josipovic and Tadic, who belong to a younger generation of politicians not involved in the war, have each made steps to reconcile.
Josipovic declared Croat wartime killings "a shame that cannot be washed out." Tadic had earlier regretted Serb atrocities.
Nikola Tarle, a Croatian war veteran, told The Associated Press Television that he wants "to remember certain things, but we can't live in the past. We have to look into the future."
The U.N. war crimes court convicted two Serbian officers for aiding and abetting the Ovcara killings and Serbia has sentenced 13 Serbs to prison terms for carrying it out. Croatia convicted one of its soldiers for slaying 18 Serb civilians in Paulin Dvor in Dec. 1991.
Meanwhile, 14 young people from Vukovar, Zagreb and Belgrade — connected through NGOs and Facebook — gathered in Vukovar. One of them, Mario Magic from Zagreb, said they wanted to show that "young people want and can build a future together."
Tadic's visit comes at what would be the 50th birthday of Sinisa Glavasevic, a local reporter who was slain at Ovcara.